Catholic Church says it helped son of Cuban revolutionary hero win permission to travel to US

HAVANA (AP) — The Roman Catholic Church said Wednesday it has intervened again on behalf of a political dissident, this time helping the ailing son of one of Cuba's top revolutionary heroes go to the United States for medical treatment.

Juan Almeida Garcia is the son of Juan Almeida Bosque, who fought alongside Fidel Castro in the guerrilla uprising that brought down dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The father was among Cuba's ruling elite, sitting on the Communist Party's Politburo and serving as a vice president on the Council of State, the island's supreme governing body. When he died last September, at 82, he was given honors befitting his title as a "commander of the revolution."

But it has been a different story for the younger Almeida, a dissident who frequently criticizes the Castro government. In November he was detained by state security agents for three days after protesting not being allowed to leave the island for treatment. He was earlier arrested for attempting to leave Cuba illegally.

Almeida, who worked for state security within the Interior Ministry in the 1990s, suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a painful, progressive form of spinal arthritis.

He has received treatment in Belgium in the past after receiving permission to leave Cuba. But authorities did not look as kindly on his efforts to travel to Los Angeles to see a doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

His family contacted Cardinal Jaime Ortega who "got involved in the matter" and personally informed Almeida earlier this week that Cuba's government had agreed to let him go to the U.S., church official Orlando Marquez said in a phone interview.

Almeida had already obtained U.S. permission, but when he would leave for the United States was not immediately clear, Marquez said.

Cubans wishing to leave the island must first obtain permission from the country they are visiting, then an exit visa. Doctors, scientists and other key personnel, as well as the relatives of leaders in sensitive military or political positions, are often denied permission for fear they will not return.

Ortega's efforts in the case were the latest example of the Catholic Church stepping in on behalf of Cuban dissidents.

Last week, church officials successfully spoke to the government about calling off pro-government mobs that had broken up a weekly Sunday march by Reina Luisa Tamayo, mother of a political prisoner who died in February after a lengthy hunger strike.

Also, for weeks in April government supporters broke up the traditional Sunday march in Havana of the Ladies In White, a support group for political prisoners, until Ortega met with Raul Castro. Authorities agreed to allow the march to continue as long as it did not deviate from its traditional route.

On July 7, the church and the government announced a landmark deal whereby Cuba agreed to free 52 political prisoners rounded up during a sweeping government crackdown on dissent in 2003. So far, 32 former prisoners have been released with their relatives into exile in Spain.